A while back I posted a piece about a pair of 1960’s combos with very similar names — Tornados and Tornadoes — but today it’s a different kind of name thing. If you’re at all interested in jazz, you might have run across a great saxophonist who worked with everybody from Ellington to Basie to Lawrence Welk and even led his own band for a while. But the funny thing is that even though most of what you see (including his own record albums) shows his name as Marshall Royal, it was actually Marshal — the extra ‘L’ just got added somewhere along the way.
Marshal Royal was born in Oklahoma, but mostly grew up in Los Angeles after his family moved there during the first World War. Both parents were skilled musicians and his father — Marshal Royal Sr. — was a music teacher and occasional bandleader, so Junior was given a good musical education. (As was his younger brother, Ernie, who would become a professional trumpeter.) By the late 1920s Royal was in his teens and was proficient on piano, violin, guitar, clarinet, and saxophone. He soon began working in nightclub bands and was just sixteen when he caught the eye of the Duke, whose orchestra was even then beginning its rise to fame. Although Ellington just needed him as a violinist for a special film occasion, it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
For most of the 1930s, Royal kept busy playing sax – and occasionally clarinet — in the Los Angeles area, mostly as a part of Les Hite’s popular regional band although he also spent some time with Art Tatum. As the decade ended he moved on to a spot with Lionel Hampton’s outfit but a couple of years later World War II came along, and Royal (and Ernie) became a part of one the US Navy’s bands for the duration. In the post-war years he again found plenty of work with bands like Eddie Heywood’s, but the 1950s began a two-decade period that would make his fame — becoming an important part of Count Basie’s big band.
Royal’s clean and clear alto sax sound led the way for the band, but he also took a vital leadership role in the group, becoming its musical director and a mentor to the younger players. It was a long and richly satisfying period, but he also found time to do some other things — his 1960 album with Gordon Jenkins was one of his best. When he finally returned to his home area of Los Angeles in the early 1970s he was ready to wind down a little and diversify. He spent most of his latter years working with a variety of other pros (yes, including Lawrence Welk) although he did lead a band of his own for a while in the 1980s. He continued working occasionally even into the 1990s, and was just a few days short of his 83rd birthday when he died in 1995.